On a long bicycle journey there is much to be said for stopping to smell the roses. For dismounting and seeking out a vantage point from which you can take stock. For looking back, and for pondering what may lie ahead. As with many aspects of a journey, this is a good metaphor for life.
So maybe the idea of a 2012 round-up deserves another look. There’s a lot to be grateful for. And there’s much that I could learn from — especially if it involves admitting to some painful mistakes.
Because 2012 has been a year of change and evolution. My previous trips (to Scandinavia and Mongolia) were fun; the times between kept things afloat. But at the beginning of this year there was still little sense of overall alignment. I’ve now made that change, as I wrote last week, and a deeper set of reflections seems appropriate.
What went well this year?
In the spring I cycled from Vancouver to San Francisco with my younger brother Ben. The route through British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Northern California encompassed a ton of variety and surprised me throughout. The trip was simple (just two panniers and a bar-bag), it was cheap (<£1000 including flights), it was flexible (I was originally aiming for LA), and most importantly it was fun.
I had a simple aim — to get to know my brother again. This was a personal goal, and I’d chosen a challenging and tangible way of reaching it, for what better way to truly get to know someone than to travel with them?
Ben was hooked by the experience and has now been on the road for 9 months (the lucky blighter). A success, then, on all levels, and a reminder that a satisfying journey is a simple, challenging and personal one.
Writing the book of Janapar occupied my summer in Armenia. I penned a fourth draft, building on feedback on from some very generous souls (to whom, having re-read the third draft, I now apologise). This was mostly successful, and I now feel strongly that writing is (one of) my true calling(s).
In the autumn, I moved to Sevenoaks, Kent, occupying the spare room of the producer-director James’ house to work on Janapar. Spending 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with someone who directs teams of runners and assistants and cameramen for a living means you get a lot done.
I next headed for Cumbria to write the fifth draft of the book. It was the sixth time I’d ‘moved house’ during a twelve-month period. Years of stripped-down minimalism on the road made this so easy; a reminder — as with so many things — that less is more.
I then launched a Kickstarter project to crowdfund the book’s production to the standard I wanted. I was blown away when I invited pledges for a modest budget of £6,000 — and instead raised nearly £10,000 in three weeks.
I am still processing this, and I’ll write a full article about it soon. But I think the success boiled down to being open about what I wanted to achieve, and in serving the community that has supported this blog over the years. The vast majority of pledges were made by members of my mailing list. (Again — thank you!)
Speaking of group efforts, another success I’ve identified this year was stepping back from my deeply-ingrained ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude, and acknowledging that collaborations are critical in the creative process.
Part of the aim for Kickstarter was to make collaboration possible for the book. The single most important step I took was hiring a literary consultant to critique my manuscript, and the final draft was utterly transformed as a result.
So much so, in fact, that it made me question why I’ve always doggedly insisted on doing everything myself. Do I have an unhealthy relationship with money? A propensity to perfectionism? Difficulty self-managing in a team environment? Well — yes, yes, and yes. Weaknesses to address.
Working with a team also lifted pressure that I’d usually lay upon myself. It resulted in a better book, and gave me the novel and unforeseen satisfaction of supporting the passions of others. My inner perfectionist had to keep it mostly zipped. And I’ve learnt so much from the team’s skill and experience.
Related to this, I’ve had to acknowledge that I am effectively starting a business, albeit a very small one. This thought originally gave me a tug of alarm. Everyone has that friend who won’t shut up about the evils of capitalism (their position is, of course, as valid as that of any other kind of extremist), and I used to be a bit like this. Just the word ‘business’ made me feel unnecessarily icky.
Thankfully, I’ve learned that there’s a difference between capitalism and industrialism; that a life of artistry, sustainability, mutual support and meaning don’t mean either government hand-outs or life in a hippy commune.
The biggest turning point in this transition makes an interesting anecdote in itself:
I had arrived in LA to fly home when I heard about a book launch in nearby Pasadena, so I cycled over. The book was by Chris Guillebeau, whose guides* I’d come across while searching for help with making a living by doing what I love whilst avoiding being evil. (I’ve based this ‘annual review’ on his idea.)
No luggage allowance left, I decided to buy the book at home. But I did say ‘hello’ to a random attendee called Alan, who then bought me a copy anyway in a random act of kindness.
Alan then went on to back my Kickstarter project. And Chris’s book* was a big help in making sense of the ‘business’ side of these passion projects. Thus I launched the film last month, made my first sale, told my first tale, and took my first step into true self-employment-hood, according to my own priorities and without the totally unnecessary feeling of being evil.
Once I’d committed, I found, the parts began to fit together — just as they had in 2006 when I decided to cycle round the world.
What did not go well this year?
There’s arguably more to learn from one’s failures than ones successes. And, of course, not everything went to plan.
It is hugely rewarding to have arrived at the end of the writing journey. But the road here has been a bumpy one. It has been less of a writing project and more of an excruciating search for the truth.
In a vast and complex world, this is not an easy task. At times I’ve found myself in love with the magic of wordcraft, but I have equally often found myself drained and despondent.
And interweaving this existential wrangling with my domestic and social lives has strained my relationships further than I can justify. I even cancelled my second expedition of 2012 because I’d tried to work from home, failed to make any progress, and pissed everyone off.
I spent my best days of writing this year alone in a yurt in the woods. I had no electricity, wi-fi or phone signal; just a wood-burner and a laptop. I wrote in a day what would have required a week and three re-writes at home. (I am aware that this sounds implausibly idyllic. But if I was going to do the hardest thing I’d ever done, I might as well have done it somewhere nice.)
One of the big lessons, then, is that I will better serve myself and my loved ones by going elsewhere to write. This is one balancing act probably better separated in two, as many writers have previously noted.
It wasn’t the first time I noticed that environment plays a large part in behaviour and mindset. I began the year in London, and spent the summer in Yerevan. City life is supposed to be about getting things done and making the most of your time, and I do find allure in this idea, but the reality simply did not agree with me.
I was surrounded by things that I did not like — traffic, noise, pollution, complacency, closed-mindedness, endless distractions both good and bad. I was not going to change these things. Re-reading blogs from that time, I can hear anger in the words, and I don’t want to be that guy.
The lesson? Simple: don’t stay for long periods in London or Yerevan. I might not be ‘getting as much done’ in Cumbria, but I absolutely love the place. There’s more to life than sheer volume.
Laying the very necessary foundations for Janapar had a negative effect as well. With so much to teach myself and so much to do, and with my partner in workaholism helping me pile commitments onto my plate, almost everything else took a back seat — including this blog. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time to write. It was that there wasn’t enough space left in my head to think about it.
Though I cannot complain about the results, it was unhealthy to have undertaken that work in such an intensive fashion. The passion I had for writing for its own sake began to dwindle; I was lucky if I got out for a bike ride once a week; I forgot about listening to music. I forgot about taking photographs or shooting video just for the hell of it.
I became a monotonous mouthpiece for my own project, with nothing else left to talk or write about. Friends would visibly hesitate before asking how I was, knowing that they would get nothing but another update.
One of my priorities now is to make sure that the ongoing ‘business’ supports, rather than overshadows, the wonderful things that created it in the first place. I am privileged — through the intermarriage of technology, a subject I love, and this community of readers and contributors — to be able to generous with writing and creativity.
So I’m returning to blogging at Tom’s Bike Trip with renewed enthusiasm and gratefulness, and I openly apologise for its neglect. This starts today, not on January 1st.
I have also not got anywhere near as far with screening events for Janapar as I’d have liked. This, again, is to do with the film launch and the book’s completion having sucked away every available hour for the last few months.
So 2013 will see a push towards launching one-off screening events so the film can be experienced as we intended — on a big screen and in a social setting with the storytellers in attendance. Get in touch if you’re part of a community that could co-host such an event.
Lastly, with all that’s happened, it would be easy for me to forget that the foundation upon which all of this sits is simply the spirit of adventure — and the journeys and the stories that have sprung from it.
Because of having to sacrifice one of my two 2012 expeditions, I am jealously guarding March and April for a journey that reflects my current priorities in that spirit.
And I also want to refocus on the rewarding and ongoing task of assisting others in their adventures, particularly the bicycle-related ones in which I’m a little more well-versed. This is something I’ve dedicated a whole section of my site to, and it’s one of my big projects for 2013. (If you’re interested in early access and wouldn’t mind answering a couple of questions to improve it, register here.)
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This essay has taken half a day to think through, to draft and edit and publish — half a day well spent. It would be so even if I didn’t publish it.
The remainder of my ‘Annual Review’ is more of a personal task, as it will involve taking the lessons learned and applying them in a concrete way to the ideas I’ve got for the coming year.
And having put this out to the world, there will now be the prospect of reporting honestly, next December, on whether or not I actually learned anything during 2012…
What went well for you this year? What didn’t? What have you learned? Be honest!